Conflict Resolution in the United Nations


The United Nations has failed in its conflict resolution role. Its fragile occupation of target nations is just part of the problem; this institution is bogged down by structural and strategic inefficiencies as well. Through an analysis of the Bosnia Herzegovina situation in 1992, it will be argued that the UN violated basic conflict resolution principles, and this led to its failure.

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Conflict resolution

In order to analyze whether the UN succeeded or failed in conflict resolution in Bosnia, it is crucial to look at the definition of conflict resolution, and the principles that determine successful intervention. Conflict resolution can be understood as processes or methods that facilitate peaceful ends to a social conflict. This can be carried out through diplomacy, mediation, negotiation, and other creative ways of peace building. The overriding principle in conflict resolution is to create peace by balancing powers (Bercovitch & Jackson, 2009). It can be achieved through several sub principles; the first one is clarifying the conflict involved. The mediating party needs to uncover the real reason behind the conflict as it may be hidden. Additionally, the process should involve a definition of an agreeable interest; expectations should be clearly separated from emotions. Third, the mediating body or party needs to appeal to overriding interests as this can lead to increased cooperation. The parties ought to work on an exchange as well. Since coercion and force lead to violence, then the only way of avoiding such a situation would be to satisfy mutual interests. Aggression or threats can only lead to the creation of unbalanced exchanges. Conflict resolution should also involve an emphasis of legitimacy by requiring the mediating body to seek precedent from both groups. Commitment must be demonstrated from all the stakeholders including the warring parties as well as the mediating organ. Power proportions need to be kept in mind as excessive promises are not sustainable. A mediating party needs to create a distance between the conflicting groups. Temporary withdrawal can allow the parties to calm their emotions in order to come up with rational suggestions. Lastly, conflict resolution needs to entail resistance to aggression. Aggressors may sometimes be beyond reproach (like Nazi Germany), and conquest is therefore necessary. However, in less dire circumstances, it is advisable to refrain from imposing one’s values on others. Aggression needs to be met in equal measure by the parties involved in the exchange (Rummel, 1998).

Conflict resolution is never really the solution to all clashes; however, the presence of an international body that can carry out these duties is essential in fostering peace in the future.

Trying to send unarmed UN representatives in the middle of a war can prove to be fatal to the concerned individuals. Therefore, temporary cease fires need to be attained in order to make the conflict resolution process work. By adherence and sometimes defiance of certain principles of mediation, it can be possible to create long term positive effects in conflicting zones.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the United Nations does not lack limits. It is subject to the will of its members in the Security Council. Lack of sovereignty can substantially hamper the institution’s ability to mediate. UN failures are essentially brought on by the limits that are placed upon it by member states. If common will does not exist between these members, then the international institution can have a very difficult time in playing the role of mediator.

A case study of Bosnia

After the Cold War, the United Nations started expanding its peacekeeping and conflict resolution activities. Bosnia was the target of such actions in the early 1990s. The country had suffered from a prolonged civil war that took on an international dimension. The UN experienced immediate failures because despite their interventions, Bosnia still had a lot of human rights violations and armed conflicts. Furthermore, cases of hostage taking were immensely prevalent in this country.

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Any conflict resolution process needs to get to the root of the conflict. In Bosnia’s case, the participants were disagreeing over land. Although the major groups were the Serbs, Muslims and Croats, other smaller groups were also involved in this conflict as well. There were about seventeen other entities in this war, yet the UN did not acknowledge this component during its conflict resolution mission in the country (Bair, 1994).

The tactical choice employed by the UN is one of the reasons why the intervention in Bosnia did not work. The conflict in Bosnia was quite complex, and new developments were arising from time to time. Initially, the UN had tried using real and perceived threats like air strikes, but this proved ineffective. It then tried to plead with the parties involved. Thereafter, it tried to negotiate with the warring factions. Moral suasion was also another technique that was employed. In the negotiation phase, the UN tried to bring the combatants together in order to negotiate a settlement. This yielded minimal results because the United Nations had not fully understood the will and the resolve of the combatants. By the end of the endeavor, the UN seemed to be a few steps behind the opponents.

The intervention in Bosnia failed to work because there were problems with terminologies and conceptions of the mission within the country. In peace operations, it is always imperative to clarify one’s intentions in a target country. The concerned UN representatives should not be confused about the expectations or their mission statement as this will minimize their abilities to achieve intended goals. Unfortunately, the UN’s mission in Bosnia was the target of a terminology mismatch by the media and some of the combatants. To the Bosnian Serbs, the UN had not come to manage the conflict because they had not sought consent from them. This group believed that the UN was nothing more than a monitoring group. On the other hand, the media and other opposing parties believed that the UN was there for a peacekeeping mission (Rigby, 1994). The institution’s chances of reducing ethnic cleansing were thoroughly minimized because it had not gained consent from one of the groups. As stated earlier, a successful conflict resolution process must involve a clear understanding of the conflict, and an illustration of legitimacy. Since the UN failed in both these fronts, then it had minimal chances of ending the conflict. The problem of enforcing its credibility among the stakeholders was a very serious deterrent to its success. At the time, another international institution-NATO was regarded as an imposer of peace, while the UN was seen as a peace keeper. Therefore, the United Nations was not expected to enforce peace, but to monitor agreements if and when the opponents were prepared. However, its association with NATO undermined that credibility, and made it easier to think of the entity in negative terms. The prevalence of two international bodies in Bosnia also meant that there was a lack of unity in command. It was difficult to harmonize actions because NATO was in charge of the navy and the air while the UN was on the ground. Since NATO did not think of its mission in terms of conflict resolution, then this made it difficult to work with the UN, and also reduced the public’s trust in the UN. Furthermore, the institution’s forces were at risk of hostage-capture by the entity that opposed them.

The intervention made by the UN in this country was quite limited, or it was not extensive. This had the effect of preventing the warring parties from defeating one another, but it was not enough to completely discourage them from trying. As stated earlier in the sub principles of successful conflict resolution, the mediating party must demonstrate a commitment to the mediation process or else their efforts will be fruitless. This lack of extensive coverage in Bosnia undermined the peace process. The UN was restricted by its impartiality principle. This rule may not always be plausible when fighting seems to be a lucrative alternative to the parties involved (Diehl et al., 1996). In fact, conflict resolution works very poorly in a lawless environment where war crime cases are so high, and the perpetrators can easily get away with their misdeeds. One of the important conflict resolution principles is the temporary withdrawal of combatants. It was very difficult to achieve much when the warring factions were deeply engrained in violent confrontations.

The United Nations also failed to resolve the conflict because it was hindered by the excessive bureaucracy in its structures. In the institution, decision making processes are mostly dependent on votes cast by UN Security Council members. If all the stakeholders in the conflict view the UN legitimately, then this can prove to be a worthwhile strategy; however, if this is not the case, then one of the parties can exploit the process to launch attacks. In Bosnia, the combatants often repositioned themselves whilst the UN’s top organs met and discussed a certain decision. At a certain point, the UN wanted to lift an embargo on one of the combatants, i.e. the Bosnian Muslims. During the time when the members were voting on the issue, the Muslims launched an offensive. Here, the structural inefficiencies of the institution led to its failure.

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A mediating body needs to resist aggression in a conflict resolution process (Collier, 2003). The UN appeared to understand this duty very well when it entered Bosnia. The institution intended on establishing conditions that were favorable to the end of hostilities between the warring factions. It wanted to achieve this through the use of exclusion zones as well as creation of certain safe areas. While these short-term plans seemed quite noble, the UN’s main problem stemmed from the lack of mission and situation incompatibilities. At the time when this intervention was staged, the UN had not gained enough experience in peacekeeping missions of this kind from other parts of the world. It was not ready for this kind of operation. The UN was familiar with military force, yet such an approach was not going to work well in the Balkan nation. In fact, the UN had no reference group to base their actions in Bosnia. Furthermore, the lack of guidelines on this kind of mission led to more complications when the mediation began. The problem of insufficient resources at lower levels aggravated this mission mismatch. The tendency for the UN was to micromanage the situation, yet these circumstances called for a limited operational and strategic level intervention. This mismatch was also seen through the strategic aspect of the intervention. It became quite clear that the UN was trying to play a waiting game in order to cool tensions. However, this approach only added to the lack of credibility that the UN already suffered from. They realized that the UN was not impartial or that it was not supporting them, so some of them began targeting the UN.

Recommendations for the future

The United Nations has made remarkable improvements in its peacekeeping endeavors since 1992; however, certain inefficiencies still exist today that continue to undermine is mediation capabilities. In order to become effective at conflict resolution, the following changes need to be instated in the institution: It needs to focus on its primary role of conflict prevention (Khan, 2000). Over the years, the UN has sidetracked into other non-core areas such as health, education, and social-cultural issues. If it can focus its energies on one thing, then it can improve its outcomes. The UN is laden with excessive bureaucracy; which is a definite deal-breaker in conflict resolution. This was clearly illustrated in the Bosnian war when one of the combatants took advantage of that fact. Some of its functions are duplicated, and this undermines the resources that can be allocated to its primary role. The UN Security Council is now regarded as an empire that safeguards vested interests. This image crisis ought to be resolved in order to restore legitimacy. Lastly, the institution needs to prioritize conflict prevention by avoiding the unconventional threats to security. In fact, it has been argued that such peculiar security targets have been designed to protect its vested interests and strategic intentions.


The UN failed in its mission in Bosnia because it did not adhere to the fundamental principles of conflict resolution. It did not focus on the root of the conflict; it was not as committed to the mission as it should have been; it did not stop aggression, and failed to realize that the lawless nature of the environment required a change in tact. It lacked legitimacy among the participants, and thus failed to engage with the concerned entities.


  1. Bair, A. (1994). What happened in Yugoslavia? Lessons for future peacekeepers. European Security Journal, 3(2), 340-349
  2. Bercovitch, J. & Jackson, R. (2009). Conflict resolution in the twenty first century: principle, methods and approaches. Michigan: University of Michigan Press
  3. Collier, P. (2003). Natural resources and violent conflict: options and actions. Washington DC: The World Bank
  4. Diehl, P., Reifschneider, J. & Hensel, P. (1996). United Nations intervention and recurring conflict. International Organization Journal, 50(4), 683-700
  5. Khan, R. (2000). United Nations peacekeeping in internal conflicts: problems and perspectives. Netherlands: Kluwer Law International.
  6. Rigby, V. (1994). Bosnia Herzegovina: the international response. Depository services program report, BP-374E, 45-57
  7. Rummel, R. (1998). The conflict helix: principles and practices of interpersonal, social and international conflict and cooperation. NY: Wiley and Sons
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